A staff member displays samples of a Covid-19 inactivated vaccine at Sinovac Biotech in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua/Facebook/Zhang Yuwei

The vaccine bubble scheme aimed at boosting the number of people getting shots in Hong Kong has been called discriminatory by some, with many who work at restaurants and entertainment places complaining they have been forced to get the Covid shots.

The Hong Kong government announced Tuesday that the vaccine bubble scheme would kick off Thursday.

At present, restaurants are allowed to have four people at one table, utilize 50% of their space and open until 10pm. From Thursday, if all the staff have had their first dose of vaccine, the restaurants are allowed to have six people per table and open until midnight.

If all the staff are fully vaccinated, they can have eight people per table, utilize 75% of their space and open until 2am.

Except for those aged 15 or below or over 65 with no smartphones, all customers must use the LeaveHomeSafe app, instead of writing their contact numbers on paper, if they want to sit at a table with six to eight people.

They will be required to show a QR code to restaurant staff to prove they have received the first dose of vaccine if they want to sit at a table of eight people.

Bars, karaoke lounges, party venues, bathhouses, mahjong parlors and nightclubs will be allowed to reopen and use half their space from Thursday – if they can ensure all their staff and customers have had their first dose of vaccine.

The maximum number of participants in religious activities, weddings and corporate meetings will increase from 20 to 50 at indoor premises or to 100 outdoors, assuming all the people have received the first jab. Travel agencies can resume local tours with up to 30 people if all their staff have had the first dose.

If employees at restaurants and entertainment venues could not have the vaccine due to health reasons, they have to submit medical certificates to their employers and be tested for the coronavirus on a weekly basis, said Sophia Chan, the Secretary for Food and Health.

If these employees make any false statements about their health, they will be penalized, Chan said.

Customers would be fined HK$5,000 (US$644) if they provide false information about their vaccination status to restaurants and entrainment venues, said Vivian Lau Lee-kwan, Director of Food and Environmental Hygiene.

Vaccine discrimination

On April 22, members of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU) protested against the U-banquet Group in Kwun Tong and accused the restaurant chain of forcing its employees to have Covid-19 vaccines.

Mung Siu-tat, the chief executive of the HKCTU, said the U-banquet Group had told their staff in an internal notice that they would be suspended from work if they did not get the vaccines. Mung said dozens of workers complained that they were subject to discriminatory treatment due to the vaccine bubble scheme.

Cheung Ka-ho, the chairman and chief executive of the U-banquet Group, said the company’s non-vaccinated staff would only be given some other tasks, instead of being “suspended from work.”

Cheung added that the company had offered cash to encourage employees to get jabs. More than 70% of the company’s staff have already received shots, while the remainder had submitted medical certificates.

Low vaccination rate

As of Monday, 1.3 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines had been administered to people in Hong Kong. About 860,000 had received their first dose, with about 409,800 receiving the Sinovac vaccine and about 450,200 receiving the BioNTech shot. About 442,300 people had received their second doses.

Over the 10 days between April 17 and 26, about 283,700 people had received vaccinations and about 178,600 new vaccination bookings had been made online.

Financial Secretary Paul Chan said Sunday that only about 10% of the Hong Kong population had received at least one dose of a Covid-19 jab, compared with 40% in the United States and the United Kingdom and 60% in Israel. Chan warned that the territory’s low vaccination rate could jeopardize economic growth.

Since the Covid-19 vaccination program was implemented in Hong Kong on February 26, a total of 25 people had reportedly died within weeks of their injections. Of the deceased, 21 were given the Sinovac vaccine, while the remaining four received the BioNTech one.

The government’s advisory panel on Covid vaccines concluded that three cases were unrelated to the vaccination program, while eight cases preliminarily showed no evidence of any linkage to the vaccines. The expert team is investigating the remaining cases.

Although the government has set up a HK$1 billion fund to compensate those who suffered from the side effects of vaccinations, no one has been compensated so far.

On Monday, a 63-year-old doctor surnamed Tang fainted at home and was later certified dead in hospital. He received the first dose of the Sinovac vaccine on March 19 and the second dose on April 16.

Separately, a 76-year-old man had a stroke on April 5 and died in hospital on Monday. He received the first dose of the Sinovac vaccine on March 3 and the second dose on March 31.

Sophia Chan said the government would continue to educate the public about the possible side effects of Covid vaccines. She said those who were worried about side effects should take the initiative to seek medical advice.

She said it was not correct to say that all people with chronic diseases were unsuitable for inoculation. She pointed out that people with chronic diseases had a higher mortality rate if they were infected with the coronavirus.

Read: HK waves carrot and stick to boost vaccinations